In Conversation: Kelly Gunner Of TOMME
From a 9-5 job to following her dream, Kelly Gunner talks us through the journey that led her to establish streetwear brand TOMME and her one-of-kind basketball handbags that pay homage to the sport she loves
Kelly Gunner is the founder of TOMME, the streetwear brand of handcrafted basketball bags. Paying homage to her own love of the game, both as a fan and player, London-based Kelly sources basketballs from all over the world and reinterprets each design into a unisex piece of art for a statement-making accessory. What began as a hobby, Kelly took a leap of faith to focus on TOMME full-time, and she tells us how she built the brand with advice for young entrepreneurs, her favourite bags and the inspirational women that she would like to have dinner with!
Glorious: TOMME combines your love of streetwear and sport. Tell us why, how and when you established the brand.
Kelly Gunner: The brand, if you can call it that back then, was established in 2016 when I made a T-shirt, which is a mantra/tagline and source of the brand name TOMME. When I started out, it was never really to establish a brand per se. It was a hobby and about having a creative outlet. I made the first basketball bags in 2017/2018, but kept them under wraps as I developed them further. I didn’t post them on social media for ages, as I was worried about them not looking perfect. On reflection, that was silly and I needn’t have worried at all because when I did eventually post, everything kicked off. In 2019 I began to think that TOMME could become a real ‘brand’. Don’t get me wrong, I was putting in the hours, I had a full-time job so I was producing bags after work and at weekends, but I was always nervous about putting myself out there in case I failed, so it was always a side hustle.
TOMME took on a life of its own as the brand quickly scaled. I had two full-time jobs and had to make a decision about whether to focus solely on TOMME. It was a risk but I had to take it. I was lucky, as my background includes knowing a little about marketing, so working with brands, influencers and social media made it easier to establish all the elements that contribute to a ‘brand’ in the traditional sense. This meant that online TOMME looked bigger than it actually was and the perception of being a ‘brand’ was there. I would love to say it was a strategic plan, but it wasn’t. It was a great deal of hard work and still is. Brands don’t happen overnight and to maintain constant development, growth and sales takes a lot. But it’s ultimately for yourself and creatively is so rewarding. If it was still just a hobby, I would still be doing it.
Glorious: What sports are you most interested in/have played?
Kelly Gunner: I love all sports. When I was younger I played football, netball and basketball. My dad was really into golf so I had my own set of golf clubs and played a little. Before the pandemic I played netball / basketball on a regular basis but since the pandemic and TOMME taking off, my teams have disbanded and I haven’t had time. But I always watch sport and dip in and out of them including F1, golf, football (I’m an Arsenal supporter), BMX and cycling, skateboarding, baseball and, of course, basketball. I loved the Women’s Euros and the support in the UK for women’s football is awesome.
Glorious: If you could choose a sport to play professionally, which one would it be?
Kelly Gunner: Ooo that is tough … got to be basketball.
Glorious: What are the biggest challenges that you have faced along the way whilst building your business.
Kelly Gunner: One of the biggest challenges is knowing when to expand, when to employ people and when to grow. I have made mistakes, grew too fast and then had to scale back. I’m learning as I go along, so there are things that I’ve had to try, find out and then re-assess. I’ve made mistakes and you just have to learn from them and move on. This in itself can be a challenge, not to let those things bother or affect you.
Glorious: Was there a specific moment in time when you knew all your hard work was paying off through a commission or A-list stars wearing a TOMME bag over their shoulder?
Kelly Gunner: When I left my job and began working full-time on TOMME is when I thought, ‘Wow I’m really doing this,’ and this was a culmination and realisation of the hard work I’d put into the brand to this point. It’s always a surreal moment when celebrities wear my bags or people post online about loving the product or brand as it’s so personal. It always feels totally amazing and I’m so grateful to everyone who buys a bag or takes time to follow the brand.
Glorious: What does the name TOMME represent to you and how do you want women to feel when they wear one of your bags?
Kelly Gunner: For me, TOMME is freedom and freedom of expression. It’s my creative expression and ideas, but it makes me feel empowered, strong and confident and that’s what I want to pass on. The brand and the products we make are for everyone and it’s people’s own creative fashion expression with our products that we love to see.
Glorious: From design through to production, what is the process, how long does it take to make a bag – are you a one-woman business?
Kelly Gunner: It depends on whether I am reworking an existing basketball or whether I need to design the basketball myself. If it’s a re-work, I tend to search the internet for the most unusual, special, or simply a design that I know will look really good. All the basketballs need to be left pumped for at least 1-2 weeks (sometimes longer) to ensure there are no dents when it cuts (or at least minimal denting). If there are dents, I have a process for pushing them out which takes a few hours.
When I design a basketball, I have to make a sample and that process takes 2-3 weeks. That includes the design of the basketball (time on photoshop etc), production / printing by the factory before it is shipped to me. I make a sample first to ensure that the design looks right and that I can take photos, video etc to promote it. I am still a one-woman production unit, but a factory helps to pre-make handles and chain straps. If it’s a custom order, I sometimes make handles, but this depends on timings. I hope to take someone on this year to assist with custom orders, as this will help speed up the process and also free up some of my time to work on new innovations.
Glorious: Tell us about some of your brand collaboration highlights and who are you working with at the moment?
Kelly Gunner: Working with adidas and Space Jam was absolutely crazy and amazing opportunities. I worked with Selfridges for their Vaserely collaboration, and to put such an iconic artist’s work on a basketball bag was a real moment. Currently I’m super excited about working on a project with Jordan in the US and also potentially NBA Labs, but it’s top secret!
Glorious: Other than the TOMME bag you designed for Glorious! – what are your favourite designs and why?
Kelly Gunner: Ooo that is REALLY hard. There have been so many and they are all special to me for different reasons. The Nike Minis, especially pink, hold a special place. Space Jam and Looney Tunes because it’s so iconic. The Market x Smiley basketball is one of my favourites and as a brand, they were so supportive of me in the beginning. Shoutout to them. To be honest, every time I design a new basketball I say it’s my favourite.
Glorious: You are surrounded by TOMME bags, so for a change, do you ever use another brand of bag or is that forbidden?! Either way, what brand would you choose to match your style?
Kelly Gunner: Totally forbidden! No, joking. Most of the time I do wear a TOMME bag and it is very rare that I wear something else. If I do pick another brand, I have a mini Moschino bike jacket bag, vintage Fendi baguette, Supreme waist bag and a Nike backpack.
Glorious: Which designers do you take inspiration from?
Kelly Gunner: I take inspiration from brands like Moschino , Melody Ehsani , Virgil Abloh (RIP), Jordan / Nike, adidas. I also look at what is happening in culture and streetwear. As bigger brands tend to go off trends, there are smaller brands and some in sneaker culture that are doing some amazing things, so I’m constantly looking and inspired by what’s around in the culture.
Glorious: Who would you list as iconic businesswomen and why?
Kelly Gunner: In my field I look up to Melody Ehsani and Yoon Ahn (Ambush) as strong female leaders, who have amazing businesses and brands. They have built incredible streetwear brands, and in particular have credibility in a space that is male driven. They have collaborated with brands like Jordan and also created a space for themselves.
Glorious: From what you know now, what tips would you give your younger self or any woman that wants to start out in business and build a brand?
Kelly Gunner: Start earlier, don’t be afraid to put yourself and your work out there. Post samples, post the process, get all your channels established and document it all. Also, don’t get fixed on one platform, try them all, work out what works for you. If one goes down, then you have a backup. Work on your email database as that is your own community to speak to and cultivate. Try things and always experiment. Some of the things that I’ve learnt, or have been a stepping stone, were outside my comfort zone. For example, someone requested and I said ‘yes’ and then I had to figure it out, or I just thought I’d try something. Get a grip on the business’s finances to help run it more efficiently. As creatives, this might be something that you struggle with, but you need to understand and have a handle on finances as the business grows.
Glorious: Past or present, if you could invite four inspirational women to dinner who would they be and why?
Kelly Gunner: Serena Williams – she’s such an uncompromising female powerhouse. I’d love to talk to her about how she handles pressure, what drives her, and how she deals with winning and losing. Rihanna – I met her when I worked in the music industry and she was the coolest, nicest person and she would have such good vibes at a dinner party. Vivienne Westwood – she has such a legacy in fashion, her knowledge would be invaluable. Plus, I love the fact that she stands for something. I would like to hear stories about the early days of her Sex boutique and how she managed to make the leap into a high fashion brand. Rei Kawakubo – her creativity with COMMES des Garçons is insane. Her innovations and avant-garde designs are hugely inspirational and I’d like to pick her brain!
Glorious: What’s next for Tomme Studio?
Kelly Gunner: There are lots of exciting projects in the pipeline this year and next. Some can’t be spoken about as they are in their infancy, but we have some cool collaborations, some new basketball products and new styles of products that use basketballs in a different way. I’m working on art pieces and new products that are not basketballs, but you can still wear them – it’s all really exciting!